Ancient Mayan Calendar

On November 9, 2011, in Mayan Calendar, by James

By Petre An

Western civilization is not alone in seeking its origins in deep time. We bundle our years into decades, our decades into centuries, and our centuries into millennia. Our ages-the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, the Middle Ages-are packaged into eras, such as the Christian and pre-Christian eras. For the believer, the Christian era will end with the second coming of Christ, for in the Christian historical view all things were made by God expressly for the ends they fulfill. The new era that will follow will constitute a timeless eternal existence to be experienced only by the true believer. Philosophers call such a temporal concept a teleological timeline, because it is dictated by things that happen at the end, which are responsible for propelling time’s arrow forward.

Before Christianity introduced this linear concept, “big time” in the West was based in the pagan tradition of the Classical world. Time was made up of rhythmic, repetitive events centered on the return or reenactment of earlier events often reckoned by celestial cycles, such as planetary conjunctions. (Recall our definition of the two kinds of time in the Preface-historical-linear and mythiccyclic.) Crossings of Jupiter and Saturn were popular choices in the ancient Chinese calendar, whereas the Chaldeans of the Middle East favored the assemblage of all the visible planets in the constellation of Cancer. The Hindu calendar, on the other hand, was a purely mathematical contrivance based on 1,000-year multiple cycles of years, called yugas. The grandest cycle of time measured in yuga lengths was thought to be a “day” in the life of Brahma. The bigger the tree, the deeper the roots. One way or another, all complex civilizations ultimately establish their origins in the very distant past.

During the Classic period the Maya developed a passionate interest in time and number. I think this is one of our biggest reasons for admiring them-they seem so much like us. By the middle of that period their interest flowered into a fascination that bordered on obsession. It is as if scribes and calendar keepers, all members of the elite class, perhaps led by one or two unknown geniuses, the likes of Newton and Einstein, had created a veritable Maya Institute of Advanced Studies. By examining some of the inscriptions the Maya produced during this exciting intellectual period we can begin to acquire a feeling for this mathematical passion and the skill that accompanied it.

What distinguishes the Maya love affair with numbers is their preoccupation with what I have called the commensuration principle-the habit of organizing time cycles, large and small, to interlock and fit together in ratios of small whole numbers, such as eight to five, the seasonal year and the Venus cycle. Where did these ideas about time management come from and how is it that timekeeping was catapulted to such a lofty level in Maya culture?

The Maya revered the base-20 numbers that made up their vigesimal system to such a degree that they fancied each of them a god. In many Maya inscriptions a defining head, or in some instances the full-body figure, of the god portrays the number instead of the simple dots and bars. Often number deities on stelae are depicted bearing the burden of time, which they carry in their backpacks along the road of time. They deposit their load of time at our feet as we face the monument. Thus, time is just like one of the commodities borne by merchant travelers.

On all the stelae that have been deciphered, the fundamental unit of time is the day. Contemporary Maya still call it k’in, a term that also means “sun” and “time.” The Maya conceived of the day as a direct manifestation of the annual cycle of the sun. In other words, time is the sun’s cycle itself.

The Maya built their cycles of days into “months,” or uinals, and they gave each day in that twenty-day sequence a name-usually that of an animal or force of nature, such as jaguar, monkey, wind, and night.

The complete cycle, called the tzolkin, or “count of days” and the sacred round, was probably invented by pairing, or “commensurating,” two smaller cycles: number coefficients one through thirteen and the cycle of the twenty day names.

There is nothing quite like the 260-day cycle anywhere else in the world. The tzolkin is the centerpiece of the Maya calendar system and the hallmark of the principle of commensuration in the Maya calendar. It is the single most important chunk of time the Maya ever kept-and still do keep in areas remote from modern influence. But why 260? A number of theories have been put forth to solve this mystery.

So where did 260 come from? My best guess is that the sacred count of days acquired its importance when some enlightened Maya daykeeper realized that the number 260 brought together many things. We can compare this magic number to our gravitational constant or the speed of light-numbers that repeatedly assert their presence in so many mathematical calculations in both classical and modern physics. In my opinion the discovery of this grand commensuration-the harmonic focal point of so many of nature’s constructs and phenomena, such as human anatomy, birthing, the moon, Venus, and eclipses-likely did not arise in the number- oriented heads of Maya daykeepers all in a flash. But with the Maya focused so intently on the idea that nature and number are joined together perfectly, the discovery of the multiple significances of 260 was bound to be raised to prominence in Maya time consciousness.

If the whole idea behind timekeeping in complex societies is to extend the past and anticipate the future, then the more organized and expansive a culture becomes, the more motivated are its leaders to devise bigger and bigger cycles. There is a lot more to say about the ancient Mayan calendar and why is this subject so relevant for the upcoming years, but that’s for another article.

To get a in-depth look on 2012 mayan prophecies – are they real or not, see

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